[ANALYSIS] Byrne, Chinguwo, McGregor, & van der Walt, 2018,”Why May Day Matters to Malawi: History with anarchist roots”

Sian Byrne, Paliani Chinguwo, Warren McGregor, and Lucien van der Walt, 30 April 2018,”Why May Day matters to Malawi: History with anarchist roots,” As it Happens News (Malawi), online at http://www.aihnews.com/why-may-day-matters-to-malawi/



When we celebrate May Day we rarely reflect on why it is a public holiday in Malawi or elsewhere. Sian Byrne, Paliani Chinguwo, Warren McGregor, and Lucien van der Walt tell of the powerful struggles that lie behind its existence, and the organisations that created it and kept its meaning alive.

May Day, international workers day, started as a global general strike commemorating five anarchist labour organisers executed in 1887 in the USA. Mounting the scaffold, August Spies declared:

‘if you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement – the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery – the wage slaves – expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.’

Anarchist* roots

May Day’s roots in the revolutionary workers’ movement are often forgotten. It arose from the anarchist movement – anarchism is often misunderstood. Anarchists like Spies wanted society to be run by the ordinary workers and farmers, not capitalists or state officials. In place of the masses being ruled and exploited from above, society and workplaces should be run through people’s councils and assemblies, based on participatory democracy and self-management.

Anarchism was a global mass movement from the 1870s, including in the USA. Its stress on struggle from below for a radically democratic socialist society appealed to the oppressed in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and the Americas.

The 1880s USA looked like China today: massive factories, poverty, slums, and the oppressed working class under the boots of the powerful, wealthy elite. Anarchist workers fought back. They were central to the US-wide general strike of 1 May 1886, involving 300,000 workers. Unions demanded the 8-hour working day, and justice for the masses.

Storm centre

Chicago was the storm centre: the third largest US city, where the elite flaunted its wealth in the face of poor American and immigrant workers. Chicago saw the largest 1 May demonstrations, against the backdrop of terrible working conditions and poverty, worsened by economic depression.

The power of the Chicago movement rested not just on numbers, but also on revolutionary ideas. It was the anarchist International Working People’s Association (IWPA) that led the massive march of 80,000 people through Chicago, growing during the following days to 100,000.

IWPA leadership included black women like ex-slave Lucy Parsons, immigrant workers like Spies, and Americans like Oscar Neebe and Albert Parsons.

Its Pittsburgh Proclamation called for ‘the destruction of class rule through energetic, relentless, revolutionary and international action’ and ‘equal rights for all without distinction of sex or race.’

Internationalist in outlook, the IWPA and the Chicago-based anarchist Central Labour Union (CLU) it led, fought for all working and poor people, regardless of race or nationality. It published 14 newspapers, organised armed self-defence and mass movements, and created a rich tapestry of revolutionary counter-culture like music.

Anarchists rejected elections in favour of mass organising and education. Elections, the IWPA said, achieved nothing much: the state was part of the system of elite rule; politicians were corrupted into the ruling elite. Instead, most IWPA activists stressed unions as the basis for genuine workers’ and farmers’ democracy: unions should undertake factory occupations, leading to an anarchist (free) society.

Haymarket Martyrs

On 3 May, Chicago strikers fought with scabs; police killed two strikers; the IWPA called a mass protest against police brutality at Haymarket Square. Here, an unknown person threw a bomb at police, who then shot dead many workers.

The Chicago elite used the clash to crackdown on anarchists. After a blatantly biased trial, eight anarchists were convicted of murder, falsely blamed against all evidence for the bombing.

Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged in 1887. Louis Lingg committed suicide instead. Samuel Fielden, Neebe and Michael Schwab got life sentences.

Rebuilding, anarchists and other socialists formed the Labour and Socialist International in 1889. This proclaimed May Day as Workers Day, a global general strike to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs, fight for 8-hours, and build global workers unity.

So May Day began as an example of globalisation-from-below. And it continues to be a rallying point for workers everywhere, facing social and economic injustices 120 years on.

Struggles in Malawi

Malawians played an important role in unions in South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Famously, Clements Kadalie spear-headed the anarchist-influenced 100,000-strong Industrial and Commercial Workers Union.

In Malawi itself, unions can be dated to 1945, when the truck drivers and anti-colonial activists, Lawrence Makata and Lali Lubani, set up a Transport and General Workers Union, the Magalimoto. This was in the context of Blantyre City strikes by teachers, sanitation workers, domestic servants and rail workers.

While the British state rolled out labour reforms in its colonies from the 1940s, the aim was to contain unionism. Repression remained common, especially against politicised unions. Unions heaved a sigh of relief at Malawi’s self-government (1963) and independence (1964). They had suffered heavily, especially during the 1959 State of Emergency.

But while unions enjoyed cordial relations with the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) during the independence struggle, relations turned sour in the wake of cabinet crisis of 1964. When unions seemed to support ‘dissident’ cabinet ministers, 14 out of 19 were de-registered. In 1965, Banda’s MCP placed unions under direct party control, a step to creating the one-party state and life presidency for Banda.

Rejuvenated unionism

1980s IMF/World Bank-sponsored Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by Malawi’s elite, plus 1990s pro-democracy struggles across Africa, rejuvenated unionism.

Chakufwa Chihana during one of his appearances at the high court in Malawi in 1992

On 6 April 1992, veteran trade unionist, Chakufwa Chihana, shook the country by openly challenging the one-party state at Lilongwe International Airport, upon his return from Lusaka (Zambia) through Johannesburg.

His arrest ignited a strike wave over better working conditions, starting towards the end of April with clerical and technical staff at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in Zomba and then workers at David Whitehead & Sons Textile Factory in Blantyre on 4 May.

On the 6 May, after being dispersed by the Police the previous day and still refusing to go back to work, the striking workers at David Whitehead & Sons Textile Factory converged and started marching towards the city centre in protest.

Along the way, workers from various work places, students and some unemployed youths around Blantyre spontaneously joined the march.

As the Police attempted to disrupt the peaceful march by force, running battles between the protesters and Police erupted resulting into riots and violence. Over 40 protesters were shot dead by the Police while many others were injured.

The following day the 7 May, in the capital Lilongwe, riots and violence also occurred following failure of the state to bring the detained veteran trade unionist Chakufwa Chihana to the high court to press charges against him.

Thousands of members of the general public including workers who had converged at the high court in Lilongwe to show solidarity to the veteran trade unionist, started to march towards the city centre calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the veteran trade unionist and demanding freedom from the one party state.

As it were in Blantyre the previous day, the riots and violence in Lilongwe on the 7 May, were triggered by the Police’s attempts to forcefully stop the march which was essentially peaceful.

From David Whitehead & Sons Textile Factory in Blantyre, the strike wave later spread to the civil service mainly the health, education, and transport sectors which almost paralyzed the state machinery.

Two years earlier, on 18 March 1990 at a location called Kawale in the capital Lilongwe, a massacre occurred that went unreported within the country in which the Police shot dead over 20 people while seriously injuring dozens of others.

This followed a peaceful demonstration that was staged by residents of Kawale in reaction to the reluctance by the Police to arrest and prosecute a local businessman called Mr. Lamba who had murdered a Mozambican national then employed by him as a truck driver.  Lamba as the employer had accused his migrant worker to have committed theft.

There were reports of the employer having bribed the Police so that he should not be brought to book. He had been known to have previously bribed the Police on a number of occasions for similar crimes.

The residents were therefore protesting against:

  1. Xenophobic killing by this employer;
  2. Failure by the Police to swiftly arrest and prosecute the employer;
  3. Impunity and corruption (Police getting bribes from this employer to shield him from prosecution);
  4. Gross infringement of the migrant worker’s rights.

The Police responded by firing on the protesters with live bullets.

What is remarkable is that these strikes (1992-1993) and the protests starting with the Kawale demonstrations in March 1990, met severe repression by the state, echoing the Haymarket events in USA as dozens of protesters were shot dead or severely injured while some were detained by Malawi’s security forces.

Finally, in 1993, the MCP regime was forced from below to start respecting freedom of association, and to loosen its grip on trade unions.

Malawi’s May Days

Under the one-party state, May Day was not a public holiday, nor could unions organise independent May Days.

So, the first May Day in independent Malawi was in 1994. Held at the Ryalls Hotel in Blantyre City just two weeks before the first multi-party general elections, and eleven months after a referendum in favour of elections, it was organised by the Hotels and Food Workers Union. Held, however, at a luxury hotel, without publicity and in the wake of state repression of dissidents and strikers, the event was poorly attended.

May Day became an official public holiday in 1995, under the newly-elected United Democratic Front (UDF) government – which included Chihana as Second Vice President.

That year, the Trade Union Congress of Malawi (TUCM) held a widely publicised series of May Day activities at Kamuzu Stadium, and a peaceful march. The new Minister of Labour, Ziliro Chibambo, was present, as were employer representatives.

When the Minister saluted workers’ contributions to the independence and democracy struggles, promising to defend workers, the mammoth crowd jubilantly ulutated.

That same Minister was, however, lambasted by the UDF government, after investors complained bitterly of his speech.  By the 1996 May Day commemorations, a new Minister of Labour was in office. And only from 2004 did the state president start attending May Day events.

Today, tomorrow

While multi-party democracy in Malawi and the reintroduction of free unionism, mark major advances for the working class, many problems remain.

SAP-style neo-liberal policies remain; many work for low wages or on small plots, and have in reality very little say over major issues; restrictions on free speech remain; police often use excessive force. In the SADC region and Malawi, an 8-hour day is still not a reality.

Conclusion: May Day today

The Haymarket Tragedy remains a symbol of countless struggles against capitalism, the state and oppression. Freedoms won in recent times rest on the sacrifices of martyrs like the IWPA anarchists, and the Malawian workers of 1959, 1992 and 1993.

May Day is a symbol of the unshakeable power of working class solidarity, and of remembrance for martyrs. It can serve as a rallying point for new anti-capitalist, participatory-democratic left resistance.

We need to defend and extend the legacy of the Haymarket affair, and to build the working class as a power-from-below for social change.


Sian Byrne works for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Warren McGregor is an activist and postgraduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; Lucien van der Walt lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand; Paliani Chinguwo is the Director of Research at the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU).


NB: This article is a revised version of one written in January 2012. For feedback, email: p.chinguwo@kemetforum.com

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